The story reminds us that Alma Powell urged her husband, former secretary of state Colin Powell, not to run because she thought he’d be a target and that Obama’s Secret Service protection, which started in 2007, began earlier than it had for any previous presidential candidate. The Times reports that officials saw a spike in threats against Obama that have since leveled off. And it notes that Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) have been hearing from constituents all week who “emphasize the nation’s racial divide” as part of their reason for their fears for Obama’s safety and that of his family.
Let me translate what “emphasize the nation’s racial divide” means. You have to understand that among African Americans there is a deep-rooted suspicion and fear of a faceless “they.” Here’s how I explained it on Election Eve 2008.
We’ve all watched it happen: Someone black plays by the rules, does everything right, looks swell on paper, and even better in person, and yet still doesn’t get the coveted school placement, the plum job or the house in the choice neighborhood.
Depending on the circumstances, “they” could be “The Man,” the establishment, white people or anyone who has access to the mysterious and inaccessible power structure that seemingly holds sway over everything no matter what you do. As a friend explained, it’s a club that African Americans have “never felt they were a part of or allowed into without a conditional permission slip.”
Blacks didn’t believe Obama stood a chance in the 2008 presidential campaign until “they” made him the undisputed winner of the Iowa Democratic caucuses. The “black angst” that gripped us on Election Night in 2008 returned in 2012 as many wondered if “they” would let him stay. Never mind that historically high African American turnout in both elections played a huge part in victories.
Before Obama’s election, the notion of a black man as president was the stuff of comedy. Whether as a story line in a movie, a stand-up riff or barbershop and family barbecue talk, it always involved that man being killed, shot or shot at because “they” wouldn’t accept having a black man in the White House. And that’s why African Americans have reacted so viscerally to the real dangers faced by Obama and his family.
Oscar Ortega-Hernandez shot at the Obamas’ home. Omar Gonzalez allegedly burst into their home. And a security contractor with a criminal record and a gun was able to get on an elevator with the president in Atlanta. Each incident stripped away the illusion of security surrounding Obama, the first lady and their two daughters. News that Julia Pierson, director of the Secret Service, didn’t even tell the president about the elevator incident until just before the story broke late Tuesday added to the growing alarm among African Americans. Pierson’s necessary resignation was announced Wednesday. But the revelation also allowed privately harbored conspiracy theories that the Secret Service is intentionally putting Obama’s life in danger to break into the open.
While this week’s barrage of terrifying news give credence to the conspiracy theories, they must not be allowed to take hold. “We recognize that protecting the president is a sacred trust we have with the American public and that they place in us,” Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan told The Times. “It’s never mattered to the service who the president is because we recognize that trust.” As an American, to even consider the opposite to be true, to contemplate the validity of those twisted theories feels like a dangerous violation of that trust.
“[I]t’s a little dangerous for us to allow that thinking to grow and spread,” Cleaver told The Times. He’s right. The men and women of the Secret Service do an astounding job. They not only protect the president, they safeguard the functioning of the United States. For their actions are what stand between the status quo and the political and psychological mayhem that would be unleashed by an assassination. Not even “they” should want such a fate for the nation.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj